Sunday, 14 October 2012

Mercenaries: I Hate Being Right, Sometimes

Once upon a time, back in 2006, I did a politics course on international relations, focused on good vs. bad governance. I did many such things in my crazy youth. And as part of this course, I wrote what I considered at the time to be my greatest piece of writing up to that point, an essay on private military companies (PMCs, essentially mercenary companies) in Iraq. It was plainly obvious that the two specific PMCs I had focused on were bad people, as almost all of them seem to be, and not solely because they want to kill people for a living. But what's more important is a historical perspective: By comparing early 21st century PMCs with 17th and 18th century privateers (sea mercenaries), it's possible to do some interesting hypothesizin' about where the modern embrace of PMCs might lead over the next century.

My prediction is not a rosy one: Privateers might have changed sides a few times (fuelling wars far longer than would have been possible without them), but eventually they all went out of business when peace finally broke out, and turned to illegal (but materially identical) piracy to make a living instead. And who did national militaries turn to to fight these sudden surges in piracy? Privateers. This stupid cycle carried on for well over a century. And I'd hypothesize that our century's recent massive swing towards PMCs will lead to similar trouble in future.

You know what makes science great? Rocket-powered dinosaur clones. But you know what else is neat? Empirical evidence. It's still too early to fully confirm my hypothesis, but there is already some evidence leaning that way, most notably this story from the New York Times, about an effort at training mercenary pirate-fighters in Somalia, which has achieved nothing but training and arming a bunch of guys, then leaving them unemployed and free to use their arms and skills however the hell they want to make up for their lack of formal pay. It's the worst possible combination, but it's far from being the only such force, and it doesn't take too much imagination to picture the others in similar positions when they're finally downsized.

So what to do about it? Broadly, I'd say two general things:
1. Stop trying to solve every political problem by shooting people in the face. There are always better options, albeit more complicated ones that require the use of more of the brain than it takes for reloading and trigger pulling, but they just take a little training to become apparent. I've studied and worked with some people from East Africa, for example, and it's not like they don't give a shit; if anything, they're more motivated than anyone else to sort their region out peacefully and might have made some progress towards that if it wasn't for the constant, violent foreign intrusions there. The people hiring mercenaries must be pretty short-term thinkers, but regardless, they have to be stopped. No more of this shit, nor its more legally-clear counterpart of using national militaries to shoot people in the face. It's neither a sufficient nor ethical solution.

2. Give these people other skills. If you're only qualified to shoot people in the face, then you're unlikely to suddenly turn to a job in IT or public health, let alone streetsweeping or shit-mopping. So they'll just perpetuate the violence, making a living the way they know how, unless we help them along and give them something more constructive to do instead.

Easier said than done? Fuck yes. But definitely worth starting to work on, before we get stuck in a cycle of stupid, pointless violence and crime for another century. It's sometimes said that the social sciences are weak because the ability to intentionally change things wrecks their predictive ability. Here, I'd say that's a strength. I want my hypothesis made wrong. Make it wrong just to spite me, if necessary.